Product management is about thinking about high level business goals, detailed user requirements and everything in between. All that juggling and context switching is really hard for an ongoing PM, let alone learning it all from scratch as a newcomer.
I joined Kayako a few weeks ago as our first product manager. I’ve come from a company where I was involved very early on with the product, so as it grew in complexity I’ve naturally grown with it.
At Kayako I’ve plunged immediately into the deep end with an established, large product. Because of the stage the company is at, there hasn’t been a thought out product management process either.
So what advice would I give to anybody finding themselves in a product position at a startup in a similar position?
1. Get your reading face on
It’s really easy to figure out what a product does. What is a lot harder is understanding the context, or the why behind it. To help you get a better understanding of this, you need to:
Find the documentation for the current product…
… and for the design decisions that were made. If there isn’t any, ask whoever was responsible for previous product designs how they got there.
Get to the nitty gritty
Drill down into personas, find out how they were made. Find out where the company is going financially, so you understand how to prioritise features and manage release pressures.
It’s not uncommon to feel like Ed from Good Burger when you’re reading extensive documentation:
Remember: don’t only read!
During reading and details, make sure you’re doing this one thing: ASK QUESTIONS. Be that annoying person constantly asking people how things work, or why they did something a certain way. You’re not going to understand anything by guessing.
If you can’t explain why your product solves problems they way it does, that’s a massive warning flag that you have some homework to do. Maybe you need to validate some huge assumptions that have gone untested for years. Figure out a plan to do that. Maybe you’ll find a huge win, but at the very least you’ll have a better documented product.
This is a good exercise to get an idea of how the company works, which leads us on to the next subject…
How does the product get built? Who weighs in at each stage? What’s the development lifecycle like? How does feedback get managed?
Figure out how things work…
…then map it out your own way, even if it has been documented before. I find writing/reproducing something myself is the best way for me to fully understand something.
Look for where the problems are
Yes, there will definitely be problems: no process is perfect. Propose change. Challenge unnecessary meetings. Make sure you keep talking to dev, design, marketing, c-level.
This is, surprisingly enough, what a modern product manager should be doing. I think understanding processes is probably the easiest place to start adding value as a newbie. Make the most of having the freshest perspective and change things for the better!
3. Make friends
As a product manager you need to be on good, relatable terms with people, because you will spend a lot of time with them bashing out specs, figuring out a go-to-market plan and more. Don’t just be a bossy stranger who keeps asking hard questions. Nobody likes those people.
Make sure you meet and at least have lunch with lead devs, marketers, c-level. To be honest, when you’re working in a small startup team there isn’t any excuse not to have a good chat with every single person in the office. Especially the operations manager (you’re awesome Tina!).
One easy way of doing this: go to a party together.
These are just a few tips for joining teams with little or no product process already in place. I’d recommend reading Rich Mirinov’s much more thorough post on onboarding PMs: I think every point he mentions has a place in teams both with and without an established process.
I’m very much still on this journey, so in another few weeks I’ll probably have another retrospective view on what has worked and not.
If you’ve read this and this doesn’t relate, I’d love to hear your point of view!